Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita. It sounds grand. It sounds like it should be wearing a sash withitalia_docg.jpg the colors of the Italian flag like the mayor did at our wedding. Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita or D.O.C.G. was designed to be the ultimate level of wine law in Italy. In English it means that the place of origin is controlled and guaranteed for quality. In Italian it means another good idea sinks into bureaucratic hell.

I was contemplating this the other day on an AlItalia flight as I broke the D.O.C.G. strip stuck over the screw-cap on a 187 ml.  bottle of basic industrial Chianti that came with my dinner. So much for the glory and the sash.

It was just 1963 when the Italian government implemented the D.O.C. (Denominazioni di Origine Controllata) to protect and promote Italian wines — and to better compete with the French. Only 17 years later they were forced to introduce the D.O.C.G. concept because the D.O.C. laws had lost all of their credibility as thousands of poor wines sported the designation.

The D.O.C.G. was to change all of this by protecting the great names of Italian wine. So the government selected five of the most important, world famous vineyard areas of Italy to be crowned in 1987 with the D.O.C.G. title. Those five were: Barolo, Barbaresco, Brunello di Montalcino, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, and Albana di Romagna.

Whoa … wait a second. Albana di Romagna you’re asking, what’s that? For those who care, Albana di Romagna is an average quality white wine and there was no reason in the world to include it with this elite group. To select this wine as the first white D.O.C.G. destroyed the credibility of the new classification from the start. Bureaucrats 1; Consumers 0.

Italy is blessed and cursed by its own diversity. Nowhere is there a country that produces a broader range of high quality wine styles from such a confusing number of grape varieties. This diversity makes for interesting drinking but bad wine law. The Italians wanted to compete with the French system of Appellation Controleé (AOC), but the sheer numbers of wine growing regions, varietals, and growers make the establishment of a definitive law impossible.

To add to the confusion the wide variety of styles being produced makes D.O.C. and D.O.C.G. more a simple geographical address instead of any kind of indication of quality. For instance, having a D.O.C. Riccardo Cotarella (the superstar consulting winemaker) would be more a more accurate indicator of  style than the current geographical designations.

Take a D.O.C.G. like Barolo — clear cut, right? Exact laws, clearly defined vineyards, very specific wine making regulations, and only one allowed grape variety. What could the confusion be here? Just taste a Barolo by Elio Altare next to the Barolo produced by Giacomo Conterno and you will be mystified. They taste nothing alike. How can this happen with all those rules and the lofty D.O.C.G. designation protecting the name? It can happen because wine making is a complicated process offering the winemaker a myriad of choices that affect the final style of the wine — even in an environment with supposedly stringent regulation. In this glorious maze of wines the name of the producer is the only reliable indicator of quality.